brand book bites from REMOTE

–  the book:  REMOTE:  Office Not Required, a new book from the founders of web app firm 37signals

–  the brains:  Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hannson blew people’s minds with their first book, REWORK.  It challenged the cultural norms of tech start-up companies and presented a host of counterintuitive ideas about running a company.  David is the creator of Ruby on Rails web development framework and Jason has spoken on entrepreneurship, design, management, and software on prestigious stages including TED.  Together they run 37signals, whose popular Basecamp project management and collaboration software is used by millions of small businesspeople around the world.jasonfried_photo_remote

I had the opportunity to get Jason’s personal insights on the benefits of working remotely and the culture at 37signals.  Take a listen to our conversation to learn:

  • how working remotely benefits employers and employees
  • what remote work suggests about the future of how business is done
  • why Jason and David encourage their people to only work 40 hours a week

–  the best bits:

  • REMOTE advances the argument that working remotely can be far more productive than working in an office environment.  “A busy office is like a food processor–it chops your day into tiny bits…It’s incredibly hard to get meaningful work done when your workday has been shredded into work moments.
  • Jason and David explain that M&Ms – managers and meetings — often get in the way of great work. “Meetings should be like salt–a spice sprinkled carefully to enhance a dish, not poured recklessly over every forkful. Too much salt destroys a dish. Too many meetings destroy morale and motivation.
  • One of the secret benefits of using remote workers is that the work itself becomes the yardstick to judge someone’s performance.”  Imagine that?!

–  the brand story:  The real brand story of REMOTE is 37signals itself.  Jason and David have created an extraordinary company because they’ve placed such a high value on its culture.  In my conversation with Jason, he explains how remote work makes a positive and direct impact on their customer experiences.  But this is only one of many surprising cultural practices at 37signals.

During the summertime, they convert to a four-day work week and actually discourage people from working extra hours to demonstrate their commitment to the belief that burnt out people don’t do good, creative work.

And, unlike many other tech companies, Jason and David don’t run the company with the goal of going big and getting out.   They actually want to grow 37signals as slowly as possible.   Growing slowly allows them to ensure they have the right people and the right culture.  In fact, Jason once observed, “We have 35 employees at 37signals. We could have hundreds of employees if we wanted to–our revenues and profits support that–but I think we’d be worse off.

–  the bottom line:  Awhile ago on the 37signals blog, Signal & Noise, Jason wrote, “You don’t create a culture. Culture happens. It’s the by-product of consistent behavior…If you reward trust then trust will be built into your culture.”   This book and the remote work approach that it advocates are the perfect examples of this philosophy.

related brand book bites:

***interview transcript:

Denise: Hello, this is Denise Yohn, and welcome to the Brand-as-Business Bites Podcast. The Brand as Business Bites Podcast gives you a taste of insights and information about brands, businesses, and the people who work on them. It’s available on iTunes. For more stuff for your brain to chew on, please visit my website at deniseleeyohn.com.

Remote: Office Not Required is the new book from the founders of web app firm 37signals. Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. Their last book, Rework, became a New York Times bestseller, and a really a standard operating manual for many tech startups. 37signals products like Basecamp are used by millions of small businesses for project management. And the company is known as much for its thought leadership, as it’s for its technology leadership. So I’ve asked Jason to join me today, to talk about the book Remote. So welcome, Jason.

Jason: Hello, how are you?

Denise: So, Remote is about the growing trend of employees working from home or places outside of the traditional corporate office. And this trend has sparked some fierce debate. One of the concerns that I’ve heard people raise about allowing employees to work remotely is that you miss the informal conversations that happen over the water cooler, that are so valuable to relationship building, and the unplanned knowledge sharing, blah, blah. What is your point of view on those kinds of concerns about working remotely?

Jason: I think it’s a fair concern, however, it’s not the experience we’ve had. So, I think sometimes that concern is a bit more theoretical than it is practical. So if you have a remote setup, like we do, and we use a group chat tool, we use something called Campfire, but you can use anything, it’s basically just a chat room for the whole company. And everybody in the company, no matter what their role is, no matter where they live, we always have conversations in this chat room. And everybody in the company’s privy to those conversations, so every single person in the company, no matter their role or their location is in that chat room and can be in that chat room. And what’s great about that, what’s better about it than being the physical state, is that everybody can participate in every conversation.

So rather than just have a water cooler discussion where four people are having a conversation, you can have a discussion where 12 people can chime in. And next time, it could be a different 12 people, another 20 people or just three people. The whole point is just that because random conversations are good, which I do agree with, by having them in an open space like this, where everybody can participate, more people start to learn about other things that are going on in the company, other interests of people who work at the company. It’s actually more conversation, and more serendipitous exposure to other things, doing it this way than there actually is in a physical office.

Denise: I see. So it actually can be more inclusive and foster more collaboration, because more people are involved.

Jason: Yeah. And it’s not even just the more people, it’s also just different people. So, for example, if a handful of designers are just talking amongst themselves, you’re only going to get discussion that’s made up of designers.

But someone in customer service might have really good insight, because they talked to a customer yesterday about something. And if the designers are the only ones talking together, and they’re over here and customer service is over there, well, customer service and design never get to talk. And so it’s really nice to have a central place where everybody talks, because you might have someone from customer service or you might have the office manager or you might have a programmer or you might have someone else dropping in on that conversation, and being able to add some additional color, some additional insight to it, which makes it a richer conversation.

Denise: Now, your book argues that, to some people’s surprise, employees don’t slack off when they’re on their own. They actually tend to work a lot more. But you all at 37Signals, expect your people to work only a 40 hour work week. And that guideline seems like it would be difficult to follow in our culture where 50 plus hour weeks are more the norm. So would you explain why you have that guideline, and how you enforce it?

Jason: Well, it’s hard to really enforce it. It’s really more a suggestion and an expectation. Because at the end of the day, you can’t really stop people from doing work if they want to do work, but we don’t want people to be overworked, that’s the key. And the main reason for that is, is that we’re a company where we all need to be at the top of our game, we need to be creative, we need to be thinking clearly. And tired people don’t think clearly. Tired people aren’t creative. If you’ve worked 60 or 70 or 80 hours in a week, which many people do these days, in this industry at least, you’re exhausted. Your mind is not clear.

You’re not really in the right condition to make some great decisions. And so, I think that time away from problems is really valuable. In fact, if you’re really working on something hard, it’s good to get away from it for awhile, rather than file more time into it.

So by encouraging our employee to make sure that their day ends at a reasonable time, and they put no more than eight hours in, and they can do other things for the rest of their evening and then come back the next day refreshed, I think they’re in a better position to do better work that way. Again, enforcing it, difficult ultimately, but you just want to set up a culture where people don’t feel like they’re expected to work that many hours.

And here’s the other thing, one of the reasons why a lot of people end up working 50, 60 or 70 hours in a lot of companies, is because they aren’t actually getting work done at the office. So they go to the office, and they sit there for eight hours, but they’re basically spending their time in meetings and conference calls, and discussions that aren’t the actual work. So they still need to make up the time to do the work they’re expected to do.

So they end up working later hours, they end up working on the weekends. Not that there’s actually more work to do, it’s that they’re spending their day during the day not actually able to do the work. They’re doing the discussion about the work, that the work still needs to get done.

So, that’s one of the reasons why people are working longer, and we want to prevent that from happening too. The nice things about being remote, is there’s fewer meetings, fewer moments to waste time, and more time to actually get the work done.

Denise: Yeah, that’s a great insight. I’m curious to know what you think remote work suggests about the future of how business is done, and how people will do their jobs and pursue their careers. Like, if you were reading the tea leaves, and looking at remote work, what would you be seeing there?

Jason: Well, I think what’s great about it is that it’s great for both sides, for the employer and the employee. Because the employer now has access to more people, to people all over the world, not just the people who are within a 20 mile, 30 mile radius of where their particular office is.

So for them, they get access to more talent and more opportunity to hire better people. There are very few places around the world where the best people are only within a 20 mile radius of your particular office. So that’s great on the employer’s side.

Now, on the employee’s side, what’s great about it and what I think more people are going to wake up to, is that remote working is actually a form of luxury because you get to decide where you want to live. Some people want to live out in the country. Some people want to live in the city. Some people want to live in a big city, some people want to live in a small town.

And to have your live revolve around the place where your office is really limits your ability to enjoy things outside of work, too. For example, we have some people who work for us who live in a farm or live on a 20 or 30 acre plot of land, because they like to be outside. They like to garden, they like to just be outdoors and recreational. And that’s a huge part of their life, and they normally wouldn’t go to work for us if we required them to be in Chicago, because that type of scenario doesn’t exist in Chicago proper.

Denise: Right.

Jason: But since they live in the country, they can do that. And then they can work for us, they can have a great job. So you don’t need to be around a specific hub to have a great job anymore, and so I think more and more people are going to wake up to that, see the benefits of that. That a company can actually provide you a higher quality of life, not because of all the standard things, which is, like, how much you get paid and that time off, but actually, it’s just about the time outside of work, and the atmosphere that you’re able to create for yourself makes yourself, at times, better. It makes your life better, because you spend a lot of your time not at work, too.

Denise: Right.

Jason: I think people are waking up to that, and that’s going to be one of the real benefits of allowing people to work everywhere.

Denise: Right. And it sounds like you have benefits on both the employer and the employee side for sure. Now, I thought . . .

Jason: Yeah.  It’s not all easy . . . I’m sorry.

Denise: No, go ahead. It’s not all easy.

Jason: I don’t want to make it sound like this is just the easiest thing in the world to do, there’s risks, and there’s tricks, and you got to figure out how to make it work, and you got to have the right people in all of these things, but I think that if you make the investment in the idea, you’ll see how it’ll pay off big time for your company and your employees.

Denise: For sure. Well, I was just going to say, you know how I’ve been studying 37signals for quite awhile, and you all have such a unique culture there. In fact, remote work is only one of the unique aspects of the culture at your firm. So I wanted you to talk a little bit about how your internal culture affects your external customers. Particularly, because you are a B to B technology firm, not like a retailer, where employees are interacting directly with customers or not all of your employees are interacting directly with your customers. So how does your culture affect the customer experience? How does it affect your brand?

Jason: Well, I think it has a direct effect, because we have really happy employees here. And really good, talented people here. And people who are concerned about quality and all the things that our customers care about. And because they’re happy, and because they’re creative, and they enjoy the work that they do, that’s going to be reflected in the work itself. So if you have a bunch of people who are upset, who are stressed out, who are tired or exhausted, you’re never going to expect them to be doing great work. You can’t get great work out of people who are exhausted and unhappy.

So I think, because our culture creates an environment where people can be happy at work and can do great work, and have the freedom and the trust to do that kind of work, our customers directly benefit from that, because the products are better, customer service is better. Our people who do our customer service, who are the front lines and super important to the company, they’re not stuck in an hour and a half commute every morning to get to work. And they don’t show up grumpy because they had a horrible commute.

They can work wherever they want. So they can go to the coffee shop, they can work out of their house, they can take a bike into the office if they’re close by or they can stay home. So right off the bat, their day starts better, they have a better start to their day. And that again, is going to impact how they treat customers, how they interact with customers. If you’re frustrated in one part of your life and then you go to work, that frustration’s going to come with you. So we don’t want to create that environment for people that come to work upset.

So hopefully that’s how it directly impacts our customers. They get to deal with happier people and they get better products at the end.

Denise: Sure. And do you find your culture helps you attract the kind of people that you want at your firm? Is this something that is a real selling point for prospective employees?

Jason: Oh, absolutely. Whenever we put up job ads, we get hundreds of applications, and many of them are really, really [inaudible 00:12:35]. And they’re from people who don’t live anywhere near us but really admire the fact that we allow people to have flexibility that they need to do a great job. So we hear from people who want to work for us, who normally would never have applied, because they don’t live nearby.

And so it’s such a huge way to attract the best people, because someone might have a great job, let’s say in New York, but they really like what we’re about, and they want to contribute, and we’re based in Chicago, and even though they may be the perfect person for us, they would never apply, because they don’t want to move out of New York.

So we would miss out completely on that person. But instead, people know that we’re open to hiring people anywhere. And so now, they’re paying attention when they see a job ad go up, to get in touch with us. So right there, we’re making a connection we’ve not have been able to make before. And to me, you do that, you hire a few people a year or however many people you hire per year if you have a much broader base to choose from, you’re going to get better people.

Denise: Sure.

Jason: And if people know that you’re willing to hire from anywhere, and just want great people and want to work with great people, then they’ll be ready to apply when that job comes open, compared to ‘I’m missing out on all of these people because of one qualification, which is that they don’t live nearby.’ It’s just a weird thing to cut someone off for. But that’s what happens when you’re unwilling to hire remotely.

Denise: Right. Right. Well, Jason, thank you so much for giving us a preview of all that we can learn from your book Remote. For my listeners, you can check out excerpts of Remote and learn more about the book on the 37signals website, so that’s 37signals.com/remote. And I also recommend you check out the 37signals blog. I’m a regular reader, and I’m always learning something or laughing a lot or being challenged in my thinking by it. And I also would encourage you to connect with Jason directly, through Twitter. His Twitter handle is JasonFried, that’s J-A-S-O-N, F-R-I-E-D. Thanks again, Jason, and best wishes with the book.

Jason: Oh, thanks for having me on. It was a pleasure.

Denise: All right. Talk to you soon. That’s it for today. Thanks for listening to the Brand-as-Business Bites Podcast. Be sure to subscribe to the Podcast on iTunes, so your brain will always be filled with good stuff to chew on. For more information, or to contact me directly, please visit my website at deniseleeyohn.com. Take care, and thanks again.


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